Ohio lawmakers are reviewing Gov. John Kasich’s proposed updates to the state budget. It’s greatly to be hoped that the governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly will use that process to start paying adequate attention to the quality and transparency of charter schools that collect state aid.
Charter schools are officially public schools, but they are not bound by many of the state regulations and union agreements that govern traditional schools. Some charter schools are run by universities and other community institutions; others are privately managed, for-profit operations.
More than 116,000 students attend Ohio charter schools. Proponents say they provide choice and competition that improve the quality of instruction in all schools, especially urban ones.
Sometimes they do: The Toledo School for the Arts is one of the best schools in Ohio, charter or traditional. So is the Maritime Academy of Toledo. Last week, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins broke a City Council tie vote to authorize another high-performing local charter school, Horizon Science Academy, to relocate to a former YMCA/JCC facility in North Toledo — a site that is also sought by Toledo Public Schools.
Yet too many for-profit Ohio charter schools have stayed open — and continued to pocket large taxpayer subsidies — less on the strength of their academic programs than on the size of their operators’ campaign contributions to Statehouse politicians. Oversight of charter schools, by the legislature and the state Department of Education, is not what it needs to be.
Current state law effectively allows an education management company to establish a charter school and then to recruit a supposedly independent governing board and a so-called sponsor, with which the operators already may be doing business. That sequence is inverted, with predictable results.
Ohio law also gives the sponsors, rather than the education department, principal responsibility for supervising charter schools. Some sponsors oversee dozens of schools; how rigorous is such scrutiny likely to be?
Primary regulation needs to return to the state. The House approved a bill last week that would tighten state oversight of charter-school sponsors; the Senate needs to go along.
A recent report in the Akron Beacon Journal described how White Hat Management, one of Ohio’s largest charter school operators, greatly restricts the oversight capacity — financial and management — of its schools’ boards and sponsors. The company appears equally disdainful of telling taxpayers how it uses its public subsidies, the report suggests.
Such opacity is all too common among charter schools. As part of its investigation, the Akron newspaper contacted nearly 300 Ohio charter schools to request such basic information as who operates the school and when its governing board meets. Nearly three-fourths of the schools did not respond fully.
Any traditional public school that engaged in such stonewalling would be in violation of the state’s freedom of information laws. Why should charter schools be effectively exempt from those laws?
A separate recent report by the Republican state auditor, Dave Yost, called the financial mismanagement of a charter school in Cleveland “theft from children.” The school was forced to close because of its academic deficiencies. Mr. Yost properly calls for a clearer definition of who oversees Ohio charter schools.
The state continues to divert taxpayer aid from public school districts to charter schools. It requires these districts to transport charter students, often over long distances, while cuts in state aid have forced many districts, including TPS, to reduce their busing programs.
If charter schools are to compete fairly with traditional public schools, they must be held to the same standards of quality and accountability. And if state government insists on maintaining its current double standard, its leaders need to tell taxpayers why.